Jonah 1: the Rebellious Prophet

Posted on 02 September 2008

Jonah 1

A good story starts at a cracking pace and leaves sufficient matters unresolved as to both invite questions and to want to read on…. Such is the book of Jonah.

Thus we are introduced to the prophet who had (apparently previously) preached a message of hope to the ‘bad’ king Jereoboam II (2 Kings 14). Does his name ‘Dove’ (for names were important in Old Testament times) hint that he was a messenger of peace, does his parentage ‘son of Truth’ highlight his call to witness for the LORD? Whatever, when called to declare the truth of God and offer peace to the city that incarnated wickedness, he ran away. Why? We are not told here… and we best wait to find out if our question will be answered. More significantly, we are presented with a man who resigned his commission, headed in the directly opposite direction and did so to escape the consequences of his call (1-3). Thus, the scene is set!

And so the call of God sometimes comes to us. We too can reject it and run from the very place that reminds us of our responsibility and call… not a few leave one church for another (or for none at all) for similar reasons!

But the story does not give us much time for reflection! It races on. Jonah mutely (but, possibly, expensively if, as the text may imply, he bought the ship!) casts himself among unbelievers and ventures into the supposed sphere of the powers that are opposed to the LORD (for so the sea was viewed in ancient times)… possibly at a time of year when the outcome was faught with danger. Does Jonah have a death-wish? Yet, for all his downward flight (note all the ‘down’ verbs in this part of the chapter), the LORD is the master of all, even the sea (4). However, while even the ship considers the seriousness of the situation (4b) and the seafarers, well aware of the danger, take remedial action (5a), Jonah sleeps deeply (5b). We are not told why, but the ship’s captain deems it inappropriate: he should pray (6). The reality is, however, that he cannot; as we cannot when we are in rebellion against God… cannot and will not! Or if we try there can be no answer: to the unhappiness of rebellion is added the impossibility of fellowship.

Eventually the situation becomes so serious that the sailors conclude that the storm is divinely ordained (7): an intuition that proves correct and Jonah is forced out of his dumbness (he doesn’t speak until verse 9). Simply, and with apparent resignation, he ‘spills the beans’ (9,10). He is forced to acknowledge his calling but in the face of increasing danger suggests that the sailors provide him with an assisted suicide: clearly this is preferable, in his view, than repentance and obedience! (11,12) Are we intended to be struck by his shear folly… and ours?

Ironically, Jonah’s refusal to speak as God’s prophet, brings about the salvation of those among whom he finds himself (14,16). Meanwhile, Jonah passively accepts his fate (15)… or is it, for there is one greater than Jonah and more ready to pursue him than he is to follow the LORD (17)? Yet the provision of the fish is ambiguous: in the ancient world the fish symbolised the anti-God: to us Satan, the serpent! Has the LORD consigned Jonah, alive, to Satan?

At which point our story takes a deep breath… and so must we till next time! Yet there are lessons for us to learn even amid the ambiguities and lack of answers given in this chapter! When God speaks, we are expected to respond not to evade his call. Rebellion renders prayer futile and probably renders us mute and sometimes even non –beleivers recognise how stupid it is to run from God. Yet there is a greater theme that lies behind this chapter… it is that of the pursuing God: not yet, however, held out as a ground for hope but of urgent challenge. The LORD of heaven and earth (9) cannot, ultimately, be evaded by Jonah or you and me!

An outline by Stephen Dray
Ferndale Baptist Church, North Avenue,
Southend-on-Sea, Essex, SS2 4ET. A recording of the spoken message may be obtained at: